by Janet Singleton
Before the Emancipation Proclamation, before the defeat of the slave states, Blacks from the United States were seeking better lives in the far west of Canada. On one verdant isle, they found the promise of prosperity – and later, violent death.
Mystery of Salt Spring Island: Who Killed Canada’s Black Landowners?
by Janet Singleton
This article previously appeared on TheDefendersOnline, the web site of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
“The whites went for the gold and the blacks went for the land.”
Louis Stark, a former slave, owned property in Western Canada in the 1860s, a time when most other African Americans legally were someone’s property. Canadian historians believe, however, that race may have caught up with the pioneer the day he was found dead at the bottom of a cliff.
Before his death, Stark became a player in one of the most unusual situations in North America’s racial history: he was among a community of ex-slaves who farmed acres upon acres on a lush and spectacular island—Salt Spring, where today individual properties easily go for a million—and in the 1860s, the blacks possessed the best land.
As a travel writer, the historical mystery of who killed Stark and three other black pioneers hijacked my attention. I have written about places all over the world. But only Canada has held magnetism for me since childhood. Its occasionally harsh climate seemed to be offset by its more humane social policies and citizenry. Historically, Canada was the “kinder and gentler” version of the United States, where the buck stopped for North American slavery. Harriet Tubman had taken refuge across its boarders from slave catchers.
Still when I heard black settlers had made their way to its westernmost and most glamorous province, British Columbia, I was surprised. I thought ex-slaves had traveled only to the Eastern and Midwestern areas. So on a visit to Salt Spring Island, off the coast of Vancouver, BC, I was trailing a great historical mystery and searching for the black past of a place that did not, at the moment that I de-boarded the float plane, appear to have any black people but me.
It was quite different in 1861 when Lewis and Sylvia Stark came ashore. They were part of a determined flow of pioneers from California, Hawaii, and Australia. Disappointed gold rush refugees comprised a segment. A number were ex-slaves fleeing the gruesome oppression of the United States.
“Three black men were killed in the space of two years.”
Stark, who’d bought his way out of slavery in America, first went to Victoria, then heard about opportunities in Salt Spring. With his pregnant wife Sylvia, two children and 15 cows, he trudged uphill and, in a clearing among the thick woods, he reached the land he’d make his own.
Ex-slaves homesteaded the best-positioned acres on the island, among them, the places near the pier where I deplaned that day. “The whites went for the gold and the blacks went for the land,” says John Lutz, a history professor at the University of Victoria. And when the Fraser Canyon Gold Rush petered out, its disciples settled in areas throughout British Columbia, including Salt Spring.
Education reigned as one strength among the African Americans. The first teacher was a black man, says resident and author Ellie Thorburn in her book Salt Spring: A Place to Be. John C. Jones taught local children for several years for free until the government made provisions to pay him.
Today the island is upscale, trendy, and artsy with galleries and boutiques occupying much of the space near the main piers. It retains a beauty that seems to float aloft from reality. On days when a perfect sky matches the sea to form a continuous plane of blue, from the air, the land looks like a patch of green levitating in the center of heaven.
In the decade that I first saw the island, the population had close to doubled to 10,000, according to Frank Newmann of the Salt Spring Historical Society. “Wealthy people are building lots of large houses. And there is a lot more construction. It’s booming and bustling. Some call it progress. Some don’t.”
What remains most prominently of the 1800s black settlement period is mere signage. Some street signs bear the names of the black pioneers, so there is a “Stark Street.” Thirty mile away from Salt Spring beside Victoria Harbor, a plaque reads: “In commemoration of the arrival in 1858 of the first group of black settlers to the colony of Vancouver Island.” But evidence indicates that the new arrivals were not entirely welcome. A campaign of terror may have existed to drive them out. Three black men were killed in the space of two years.Land owner William Robinson’s murder in 1868 garnered the most attention. The others went uninvestigated or barely investigated. Tshuanahusset, an Indian, a member of the group the Canadians now call the First Nations, was tried and hanged for the crime.
“The settlers lived in clusters and did not farm side-by-side with the whites.”
Over a hundred years later, Tshuanahusset’s conviction was questioned. In the late 90s, John Lutz, history professor at the University of Victoria, and Ruth Sandwell, history professor at the University of Toronto, wrote a paper titled “Who Killed William Robinson? Race, Justice and Land: A Whodunit,” and placed it on the Internet. Sandwell made it a cornerstone for a course that she taught at British Columbia at the time. Her students looked at the archives and came away convinced of Tshuanahusset’s innocence.
“Right after the murders the tide really turned for the black community,” Sandwell has said. “They started getting worse land and less land. By 1971 most left.”
On my journey to Salt Spring I found that Nadine Sims, 80 at the time, and the great-granddaughter of Louis Starks, was among the island’s last black land owners. “Our family originally had about 1,000 acres,” she says. “My great-grandmother thought this was paradise.” The stories handed down to Sims indicate the presence of both racism and cooperation. “I’ve been told that relationships were cordial,” she told me. Yet Lutz refers to a map that showed the settlers lived in clusters and did not farm side-by-side with the whites. Salt Spring was not a place where race hardly mattered, as it was reputed to be, he says.
Intermarriages occurred at a time when cross-racial unions were illegal in many American states. “People married their neighbors and their school friends and those neighbors often happened to be white,” Sims says. “But I do believe William Robinson’s death frightened the family,” she said. The Starks moved further into town and began raising fruit on a farm they called Fruitvale. Their flight gained them no immunity from violence, though. One day in 1905 (records differ about the year) Louis Stark’s lifeless body lay at the bottom of a cliff. He had refused to sell a mine he owned to a local company with a reputation for aggressively disliking the word “no.” Authorities said the death of the 85-year-old Stark was an accident and no investigation ensued.
“The island’s lack of employment was made worse by discrimination.”
Generations that followed found it hard to hold on to the land they had inherited because, for them, the island’s lack of employment was made worse by discrimination. And earlier the end of the Civil War had been instrumental in drawing many black residents back to the US to be reunited with their families, Lutz says. Most of her relatives sold their property and headed to Vancouver or the US, Sims says. What remains is a log house she owns to this day. It stands on Stark Road, not far from Fruitvale Road. Her great grandfather and his sons built it with their own hands at the turn of the century.
But what happened to the other black owned land? A letter written to the authorities by William Robinson’s widow, likely in Philadelphia at the time of his death, complained that she received no inheritance for the property, Lutz says. The family has descendents and Lutz says that he could imagine their heirs asking for reparations one day.
Who killed Robinson and whether there existed a campaign of terror to drive blacks out remains a mystery. On Lutz’s web site he challenges students and the public to go over the archival evidence and information and solve the question for themselves. What happened to Robinson’s homesteaded acres is less of an enigma. Lutz says, “It was really valuable land, and local white settlers ended up with it.”
Janet Singleton is an award-winning journalist and novelist.